Dave Matthews talks music, life and guilt
At 45, the leader of the Dave Matthews Band is older, wiser, more thoughtful
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
As the leader of one of the most popular and musically accomplished touring bands in rock ‘n’ roll, Dave Matthews knows what it’s like to have fans sing his praises at length — including this year’s “American Idol” winner (and Matthews sound-alike) Phillip Phillips. But when it comes to Matthews tooting his own horn, well, don’t hold your breath.
“In so many areas of life, I’m a spaz and incompetent,” the namesake of the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) said, sounding completely earnest. “I’m far below the average. I’m exceptionally poor at most survival skills.”
Such claims notwithstanding, this self-effacing singer-songwriter is well aware that he has survived, and thrived, beyond the wildest dreams of almost any musician. That he and his improvisation fueled band have done so without benefit of a slew of hit singles and the requisite Top 40 radio saturation makes their success all the more unlikely.
DMB’s 2009 tour grossed $56.9 million, according to Pollstar magazine, the concert industry’s leading weekly publication. This feat was is doubly notable since DMB charges considerably less for tickets than most other top concert attractions. At the end of 2009, Pollstar named DMB the highest earning touring act of the decade, with a total gross estimated at $529.1 million (for ticket sales of 11.6 million).
Matthews and his 21-year-old group perform here Friday at Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre in Chula Vista. The show comes just five days before the release of their potent new album, “Away From The World,” which reunites them with producer Steve Lillywhite (who oversaw DMB’s first three albums).
Mindful of their remarkable good fortune, DMB launched the non-profit Bama Works Fund in 1999. Based in Virginia and administered by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Bama has given more than $14 million to dozens of charities, from the American Red Cross and United Way to the Charlottesville Youth Orchestra.
Since 2001 Matthews has been a director of Farm Aid, which was co-founded in 1985 by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp to support for independent American farmers. He has also supported an array of other worthy causes, including Kids Wish Network, Habitat for Humanity and Artists for a New South Africa.
Where, exactly, did his sense of social responsibility originate?
“For me, it came mostly from my mother and my family,” Matthews, 45, said from his home in Virginia. “At the same time... I feel so over-compensated. When I look at how fortunate I’ve been, being a musician... my response to being overpaid is that I should pay it back to my community in some way. I think there’s probably guilt involved, too...
“So, when I look at someone on the side of the road who has a ‘Will work for food’ sign — and this is not a crazy exaggeration — although I’m millions of dollars away from where that person is, I’m really not that far away from them, in terms of how fate has smiled on me, (although) I don’t believe in fate. There’s not such a big gap between us (rich and poor), and every day that gets impressed upon me, when I look at the people around me.”
As a teenager in his native South Africa during the brutal apartheid era, Matthews witnessed the dramatic divide separating blacks from whites, rich from poor, the privileged from the oppressed.
Growing up in the midst of such disparity and injustice made a profound impression on him. So does the precarious state of the world today, which he addresses on several songs on DMB’s new album. One of them, the mid-tempo, brass-punctuated “Gaucho,” features a refrain of “Please wake up” and such plaintive lines as: We gotta do much more than believe / If we wanna see the world change.
Asked about the song’s inspiration, Matthews said: “I guess it comes out of a vein of sort of unavoidable sadness that I find in the tailspin of an arrogance a lot of people have, and the fear of what the result of that will be...
“So often, the magical parts of people that we most admire are the moments where we have a little humility, where we suddenly stand back, and think: ‘What can make things better? How can we live in a balanced way?’ The saddest part of the human race is we’re obsessed with this idea of ‘us and them,’ which is really a no-win situation, whether it’s racial, cultural, religious or political.”
As a young man in 1991, when DMB was launched, Matthews looked at the world through youthful eyes. How has his approach to songwriting changed, now that he's an older and wiser family man?
“Maybe there’s a little more experience and more of a craft to the process,” he said. “I’ve never been much of a craftsman, in an educated way. But I think just the experience of writing makes the avenues I follow a little more efficient, in some ways. At the same time, when you’re young, you’re a little more fearless and there’s less of an internal critic.
"Whether that’s good or not, there’s a feeling of immortality that comes with being 20 or 25. Sure, we’re afraid of a lot of things at that age. But, whatever our obsession is when we’re young, we have access (to emotions) without much analysis. Nowadays, I think I’m a little more critical of myself. (Now) when I’m writing and not judging the quality of what comes out, but the process, maybe I have to dig a little more to access the sort of vulnerability that youth is more wiiling to expose.
"As far as the band dynamic, we've lasted quite a while and not always easily survived some tumultuous relationships. At least, where we are now -- I don't assume it will stay this way always because we're older and wiser -- but I feel we have more of the callouses of experience... So, at least at the moment, it doesn't seem the band is as emotionally volatile as it was 15 years ago. And that's just managing to survive our egos and our oversensitive natures. We maybe have a little more wisdom about what matters, at least in out tiny universe, certainly not beyond the tops of the trees."
It's unclear whether this increased wisdom inspired the title of DMB's impressive new album, "Away From The World," which features some of the group's most ambitious and impressive work to date.
But the return of Steve Lillywhite, who produced DMB's first three albums, is cause for celebration for devoted fans. He and the band fractiously parted ways in 2000 after recording another album, which was shelved in favor of "Everyday," an uncharacteristically sleek (and sometimes slick) release produced by Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette veteran Glen Ballard.
The songs made 12 years ago with Lillywhite soon appeared as an online quasi-bootleg "The Lillywhite Sessions." Some of those songs appeared in 2002 on the next official DMB album, the wryly titled "Busted Stuff," although they had been re-recorded with another producer. Getting back together with Lillywhite for "Away From The World" represents a step forward, not back.
"(at first) Steve had this desire to record songs we had (stockpiled) over the past 20 years that we never recorded," Matthews said. "There are, like, 50 of them. I don't know how many we've played live, maybe 15, but I was excited about working with Steve (again). Everyone was, but I didn't want to take a bunch of old songs with Steve; I wanted to make a new record.
"I think we thought it would be a very quick project with someone who does it lovingly. And what made us look for other producers 12 years ago doesn't matter, (because) we've all grown up. Then I wrote a new record and the band helped me shade it and turn it into this album, and no small part of that was Steve. I hadn't forgotten, but he really does work with this band in a way that no one else does. He doesn't let anything fall through the cracks; he's really part of the process every minute of the way."
Can Matthews elaborate? Indeed he can.
"The most obvious example is how well Steve works with Boyd (Tinsley, DMB's violinist), who is spontaneous and unbridled," Matthews said. "Every producer we've worked with since (Lillywhite 12 years ago) has caught something of Boyd, but had a hard time really capturing that fire and spirit that Boyd can reach sometimes on stage.
"Whereas, Steve's patience and kindness with Boyd inspired Boyd to play that way. So Boyd is featured more obviously on this record than on anything we've done in the past 12 years . But our relationship with Steve is different (now), in that were more peers now than when we first started, and -- by our third album -- we were peers more than (with the first two).
"Now that we're older, it's more like we're old friends and brothers. Steve is a great friend. We're all egomaniacs and he's no exception. He's an eccentric, but I say that in the most positive way. He's a remarkable producer and it was nice to be in the studio and be reminded of that and of how spectacular working with him can be."